When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last spring, advocates immediately warned that catastrophic outbreaks would soon pummel prisons and jails due to poor medical services, unhygienic conditions, and the tightly interwoven routines of incarcerated people and prison staff. An outspoken cohort of lawyers, organizers, journalists, and incarcerated people themselves demanded bold action to mitigate the crisis by reducing prison populations, including through executive measures like commutation and clemency.
In some cases, judges and policymakers heeded the warning, significantly cutting jail populations in a number of counties using a variety of executive and judicial mechanisms. While it denied 98 percent of all compassionate release requests, the Federal Bureau of Prisons still moved almost eight thousand prisoners (or about 5 percent of the federal prison population) to home confinement.
At the state level, however, mass releases to control the spread of coronavirus were never seriously entertained. And the severe consequences were soon apparent: nineteen of the country’s twenty largest COVID-19 clusters at the end of the summer were in correctional facilities. By the end of 2020, researchers estimated that one in five incarcerated people in the United States had been infected. COVID-19 infection rates in state and federal prisons are now four times higher than in the general population, and at least 1,671 incarcerated people have died of the virus.
For the estimated 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, the pandemic has been a period of intolerable cruelty and uncertainty. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are housed in conditions that make social distancing impossible — those who are not placed in open dormitory-style housing are typically confined in a small cell with at least one other person.
When correctional authorities have attempted to suppress the virus, it has been through chaotic and often inhumane lockdown regimes.
In federal facilities, entire prison populations have been placed periodically in solitary confinement following COVID-19 outbreaks. Some state systems enforce similar isolation routines. In virtually all facilities, outside visitation has been suspended entirely. And in a number of cases, correctional officers have retaliated against those who have voiced medical concerns; in March, for instance, guards at New York City’s Rikers Island jail pepper-sprayed a group of incarcerated people attempting to walk to a medical office.
Given these inhumane conditions, a number of officials have recognized the need for a prompt and effective vaccination program. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, eight states now include incarcerated people alongside other “vulnerable populations” in Phase 1 of the vaccination process. (Seven more include corrections officers, but not prisoners.)
Any humane vaccination plan would place incarcerated people high on the list of early vaccine recipients. But predictably, given the perverse power of law-and-order politics in the United States, the suggestion that incarcerated people should receive vaccines before the general public has been met with outrage and moral grandstanding.
Colorado altered its initially sensible vaccination plan after Democratic governor Jared Polis became a target of vitriol online and in conservative media. After days of relentless criticism, Polis testily announced that there was “no way” the vaccine would “go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.” In North Carolina, the state scaled back its initial plans to promptly vaccinate prisoners over sixty-five or with preexisting conditions after staff and public pushback.
Yet shouting about law and order can’t change the fact that incarcerated people are connected — intimately and extensively — to the broader society around them. By preventing incarcerated people from immediately getting the vaccine, law-and-order zealots could doom us all.
A Law-and-Order Perspective on Public Health Is Shockingly Naive
A December 2 op-ed in the Denver Post helped ignite the recent outrage, not only in Colorado but around the country. In the column, George Brauchler (then a sitting district attorney) characterized Colorado’s decision to vaccinate incarcerated people as an affront to the elderly. Mentioning his own seventy-eight-year-old father, Brauchler concluded that “every elderly Coloradan who contracts and dies from COVID while prisoners get vaccinated” will have soft-on-crime Democrats to blame.
Counterposing the health of the incarcerated and the safety of the elderly — as if protecting one necessarily harms the other — betrays a profound misunderstanding of how COVID-19 works. Brauchler must think his father lives somewhere with a hospital system that does not serve incarcerated people, nor anyone employed by (or recently released from) prisons and jails. It is profoundly unlikely that Brauchler’s father, wherever he lives, is entirely unexposed to the vast social machinery of incarceration in the United States.
On the contrary, he’s probably in a similar situation as my own parents. They reside within a short drive of federal and state prisons (as well as a slew of county jails), in an area served by a single major hospital system that suffers recurrent shortages of lifesaving equipment like ventilators. Many of their neighbors work as corrections officers or support staff at a number of different prison facilities. Other neighbors regularly return home to the community after short periods of incarceration (often for parole violations).
In no way are my parents’ health outcomes unrelated to those of the thousands of incarcerated people who surround them. Beyond the immediate dangers of shared exposure, a significant outbreak at even a single prison or jail facility nearby could easily overwhelm the community’s hospital system.
In a country where jail capacities have ballooned even as hospital capacities have cratered, lives in and out of prison are tethered perilously together by the same frayed social fabric. If we are concerned with protecting lives and ending the pandemic, we must demand a vaccination plan that delivers vaccines to incarcerated people as rapidly as possible — for everyone’s sake.